Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Book Review: Rotters by Daniel Kraus February 9, 2012

Publisher: Delacorte
Release Date: April 5, 2011
Series: stand-alone
Age Group: Solidly YA (warning: violence, gore, language, sexual content)
Pages: 464
Source: purchase
Genre: (macabre) Realistic Fiction (some say “horror” but there’s no real fear angle, so I don’t think that truly fits)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 4★; Execution 3.5★

 

★★★★

Joey lives a sheltered life. His mother fulfills all of his needs, and it seems Chicago fulfills all of hers—they never, ever leave the city. But when a tragic accident sends Joey to a remote town to live with his father, he finds he has a lot to learn about life…and death.

Before he knows it, he’s been drawn into a macabre underworld that thrives on decay: a secret society of graverobbers. And, as much as his own accumulating stench and his father’s mysterious reputation as a “garbage man” isolate him from the insular, closed-minded society of Bloughton High, they might eventually be the very things that draw him back in.

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The pros…
 
This book starts with much promise. I didn’t realize just how long it had been since I had sunk my mental teeth into truly high-quality writing, until I finished the first few pages of this book. I was immediately hooked.
 
The style is what I can only describe as “piecemeal” in a most clever way—each sentence requiring more than your average bit of thought to process. Sometimes information precedes itself—if you know what I mean—and then unravels in the following sentences. For instance, my favorite passage in the book is the description of a girl—only, you’re halfway down the page before you fully understand what or whom it’s talking about. When it finally clicks, however, it’s a truly satisfying sensation.
 
Elements like that, combined with some truly unusual and refreshingly insightful details really put you behind the narrator’s eyes—you’re right there with him and it’s visceral. When it comes to the gory bits—and OH are there some gruesome passages!—it can be shocking, as well it should be. I won’t lie: I found myself on the subway closing my eyes and massaging my temples, or just gaping in horror at the page (and being gaped at in return by my fellow passengers) after happening unawares upon particular moments. And they are well placed for just such effect. Because not all of the related scenes contain descriptions of what Joey sees in the coffins, you never know when one will jump up and gum you to death. And, don’t be surprised if they stick to you for a while, either. (I confess, I eyed my roasted sweet potatoes warily last night when one of the mushier pieces smeared across the pan: unwillingly found myself thinking about how it had once been “alive”…)
 
If you’re like me, it will also be those lingering images that prompt a reconsideration of life, death, and mortality, and not Joey’s haphazard and drawn-out goose chase of the subject. As with the sweet potatoes, I can’t help but be constantly reminded of how dualistic life is. No matter how much we remove it from our everyday sight, package it in cellophane, and smother it with sweet-smelling euphemisms, death and decay are inextricably intertwined with life. They are two inseparable sides of one coin. And, the unabashed promotion of this realization is the true strength of this story.
 
The cons…
 
However, the book’s faults are intertwined with its assets, to some degree. Joey’s character, though the stream of his thoughts are belabored, didn’t ever solidify for me. Dimension was given to the smallest details outside of him, but the inside remained opaque. And similarly throughout the book, the evocative style, while excellent when it had something to focus on, wasn’t pared down enough when it didn’t. When combined with a multitude of meandering (sometimes superfluous) twists of plot, it resulted in a really drawn-out story. I put the book down more than once wondering if it would ever end. Without a doubt, the manuscript could have used a good strong structural edit to scrub some of the excessive prose and unnecessary scenes. (For example, I think more than one run-in with “Baby” wasn’t really necessary. They could have been combined and made more effective. Or, a more willing and resolved embrace of the book’s Jeckyll and Hyde undertones would have made the plot as clever as its metaphors.) Alas, this wasn’t done, and without the masterfully gruesome detail, many of the story’s finer points would have been lost in the overabundance. (I know: pot calling kettle!)
 
Finally—and herein lies my biggest criticism—while this book doesn’t try (or succeed if it did) to be anything other than macabre realistic fiction (despite the fact that the world of the “Diggers” is other, it’s not paranormal), the ultimate villain is absurdly unrealistic. Everything else in the book I could buy, and to strong effect; but that guy’s purported feats—especially his nothing-short-of-miraculous reappearance at the end—were not only surprising and disappointing, but truly irritating.
 
The final word…
 
Overall, however, Rotters is an utterly different, refreshingly nuanced, and excitingly complex read. Though I found the final third of the book lost its way, and am not sure that I gained much from the last 150 pages that I hadn’t gotten from the 300 preceding it, the provocative look at mortality that was offered up so starkly and unapologetically until that point made it worthwhile to finish. Until Hyde took over, I couldn’t help thinking of it as the (less svelt) YA version of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.
 
But, if the mark of good literature is that it changes you somehow, alters your perspective in some way, then I’d give this one a solid vote. Whatever my gripes about the wandering plot, I will never look at rotters (the living or the dead…or the vegetable), in quite the same way again.

 

Influential Book of the Month: The Iliad by Homer January 11, 2012

 

 

The Iliad by Homer

 

Written around the 8th Century BC, this epic Greek poem about the
Trojan war has influenced countless classic authors with its tragic
and quintessential tale of hubris, love, and war. With hunks like Achilles
and Odysseus, hotties like Helen, and powers that be like Ares, Apollo,
and Aphrodite, it’s no wonder this book is also prime inspriation for
today’s YA otherworldly writers.

 

Known Progeny:

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney
Nobody’s Princess and Nobody’s Prize by Esther M. Friesner
Troy by Adele Geras
Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini
The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot
Achilles: A Novel by Elizabeth Cook
 
 
 
 
 

Check out the IBoTM page for more titles that have helped shape today’s YA landscape.

 

Know of another bit of offspring from any of these books that isn’t listed here? Email it to me at booknotized[at]gmail[dot]com!

 

 

Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien November 7, 2011

Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Release Date: March 30, 2010
Series: Birthmarked Trilogy
Age Group: solid YA (mild graphic violence/birth scenes)
Pages: 368
Rating: Idea 4.5★; Execution 4.5★
Genre: dystopia

★★★★1/2

Being a midwife is never an easy job—things happen, babies are stillborn, women bleed to death—but at least most of the time it goes well. Mother is reunited with the soft bundle she has loved and nurtured for 9 long months…and will for the rest of her life.

Unless, of course, you live outside the wall. There, conditions are harsh, and babies—like water—are rationed, a practice 16-year-old, brand-new midwife Gaia goes along with…because she must. That is, until her mother and father are suddenly taken prisoner, and Gaia finds she can no longer abide by the unjust laws of the Enclave. She must get them out, even if it costs her life.

Where they will go afterward, no one knows. The settlement has been carved from the arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland of (now) Unlake Superior—and it stretches almost beyond the reach of legend.

And then, of course, there’s the question of Leon and his dangerous interest in her. Yes, what on earth is to be done about Leon (and her smoldering interesting in him)…?
 
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For starters, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Prized, the sequel—out tomorrow, Nov. 8.

I was hooked on page one, which drops the reader wholly and without hesitation or apology into an intense, visual, and rather daring (if you asked me) birth scene. My first thought was, Whoah!… and then Well, any book that starts with a jarring, evocative line like “the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands,” is bound to be taking chances elsewhere. And I like books that take chances.

I wasn’t disappointed.

(I ♥ the PBK cover.)

The setting for this book is unique—something like the 1st-century Middle East. At least, that’s how I envisioned the small, twisting streets, bright flowing garments, water cisterns, and stretching desert. And, it is incredibly well evoked. The artistry of the book really is in the details that are woven throughout. Well-placed flashbacks and everyday events illuminate and develop protagonist Gaia into not only an empathetic character, but an almost living, breathing entity one feels drawn…even compelled to follow under the wall and down the perilous streets of the Enclave—though it very well may cost you your life!! (Hyperbole, I know, but I was into it!)

The love interest, Leon, is singular (*handful of confetti*) and irresistibly compelling (*bag of confetti*), on account of which the ending—a cliffhanger, and normally a turn-off for me in series books—is really shocking, painful, thrilling, and, well, just excellent. (*confetti storm*)

Of course, this means that one (read: I) must acquire a copy of book 2 ASAP, or one (read: I) really might burst…but enough about that.

There was only one element I thought could have used “more,” and that was Gaia’s parents. Because of the circumstances of the plot, they were kind of glossed over/incidental, and dealt with rather abruptly at the end. Considering the obvious care taken throughout the rest of the book, I can’t help but wonder if that was a result of the story’s unexpected evolution from 1 volume to 3 (an anecdote O’Brien revealed at the Brooklyn book festival this September). As much as I usually begrudge the after-effects of a publisher-pushed sequel, however, I am equally (oh, who am I kidding? more) glad to be able to revisit Gaia and her world.

And, I have a sneaking suspicion it will turn out alright: the mastery really is in the writing—the style, the vocabulary, the excellent metaphors. Those elements, and a tight plot with elemental (detailed) integrity, set Birthmarked apart from others in the genre.
 
For another perspective on this title, check out my good friend Shanella’s review.

 

Currently Reading: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin July 11, 2011

{{Note: these books are marketed for adults and contain mature graphic content, as does the show that is based on the series, and I do not recommend them for the typical YA audience.}}

Two episodes into the HBO series based on Martin’s work, I knew I had to read the A Song of Ice and Fire series they were based on. I will confess, I think I’m reading it more slowly than I would – going along at something like a meander – because I already know the plotline. That leads me to think that I prefer reading BEFORE watching (nothing new). Although, I will say that the cast of characters was so well chosen for the show that I don’t mind having their faces implanted in my head. All together, looking forward to reading #2 before Season 2 starts…and then watching Season 2. Sigh. I’m a lost cause.

**George R. R. Martin is appearing at Barnes and Noble Union Square in NYC this Thursday!**

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“Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.” (via barnesandnoble.com)

 

 
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